Two of Nigeria’s iconic figures at the USA’94 and France’98 World Cup Finals, Victor Ikpeba and Peter Rufai, are optimistic the Super Eagles will be up to the task when they face their Group F opponents at the World Cup in Brazil.
Nigeria are will be up against Iran on Monday. They will take Bosnia-Herzegovina on June 21 before tackling the Argentines four days later in their last group game.
Of the three opponents, the South Americans are considered as the toughest, and favourites to top the group. They have met and beaten Nigeria on three occasions at this level – at USA’94, Korea/Japan 2002 and South Africa 2010.
In spite of the odds against Nigeria, the ex-internationals believe the Super Eagles have learnt their lessons at previous editions to spring a surprise in Brazil.
Ikpeba said, “At the 1994 World Cup, we could have gone as far as the last four. In 1998, we were fresh from winning the Atlanta’96 Olympics and we could have reached the quarterfinals, but I don’t know why we couldn’t achieve that. We had a fantastic team, a good generation of players at France’98. When we look back to that year, we realised we had what was needed to go far in the tournament.
“But with these young players we have now, World Cup for them will be tough. Not many of them have the World Cup experience. Some of the key players like Joseph Yobo and Osaze Odemwingie have been there before but the rest are new on the stage. I think the youthfulness in the team will help their performances.
“They are the African champions; not many people gave them the chance to win the Nations Cup last year but they did it. Nigeria can spring surprises when they’re underrated.”
The former AS Monaco forward likened the current squad to the 1994 set that almost defeated Italy in the second round in the USA.
Before the USA’94 Finals, Nigeria played four friendly matches against Colombia, Sweden, Romania and Georgia, winning just one – the Georgia game in Ibadan.
“We should forget about what happened in the friendly matches (against Scotland, Greece and USA); they’re not significant. They’re important, but not significant. Of course, we would prefer they win World Cup matches instead of friendly games,” he said.
“Our strikers were able to create chances during the friendly games but it was scoring that became the problem. I believe if the players settle well in a game, scoring will not be a problem.
“At the Africa Cup of Nations last year, they didn’t struggle to score because the confidence was there and the goals came naturally. The coach will need to work on the strikers to boost their confidence in front of goal.
“I think (Emmanuel) Emenike will score, also Victor Moses. It’s difficult to predict how many goals they will score but I’m confident they’ll perform well.
“We shouldn’t be carried away with the belief that we can win the World Cup; we should be careful about our remarks. But I think this team can go as far as the quarterfinals or the semi-finals. They have what it takes.”
Rufai, who was one of the longest serving goalkeepers in the national team, recalled how Argentina used team work to mesmerise Nigeria at the 1994 Finals.
He also suggested tips for goalkeeper Vincent Enyeama on how to communicate with the defence line-up in order to stop opponents.
“The Super Eagles’ success at the 1994 Africa Cup of Nations boosted my confidence ahead of the World Cup, but I had to make a little research on players like Roberto Baggio and Diego Maradona. I looked up their history and I tried to create strategies on how to stop them,” Rufai said.
“Back then at the World Cup, Samson Siasia was my roommate and we would discuss on how to stop these players. He would say, ‘Just breathe and be yourself.’
“For (Vincent) Enyeama, it is easier this time around because he has been to the World Cup (at South Africa 2010). He is playing for one of the big clubs in Europe and has been very consistent with the national team.
“Another positive for the team is that they have a sound technical crew headed by Stephen Keshi who had featured at every level of the game. As a player, Keshi knows how to cut off dangerous players on the pitch.
“While Keshi was playing, I was in goal. He wore the captain’s band and knew his responsibility on the pitch, but I was the captain from the goalkeeper’s point of view. I was the one initiating the moves in the defence line-up. I would tell Keshi or (Uche) Okechukwu or Ben Iroha when to move right or left, depending on the perceived attacking formation of our opponents.
“Keshi has the technical and tactical understanding of how to build a team and how to stop opponents. I know he’s going to impart on the team and I believe Enyeama will learn a lot on how to organise his defenders from him.”
Rufai said the presence of former Nigeria goalkeeper Ike Shorunmu in the coaching crew was an added advantage for the likes of Enyeama and the other goalkeepers in the team.
He believes Enyeama will once again be the man to deny Argentina forward Lionel Messi the spotlight when they meet.
He said, “There’s no goalkeeper that will not be preoccupied with the thought of the deadly strikers he will likely face at the World Cup. Enyeama will be having such thoughts right now. Since he has experienced what it’s like to play against the best strikers around, it shouldn’t be much of a problem to come up with solutions on how to stop them in Brazil. He should be familiar with (Lionel) Messi’s style by now.
“Every goalkeeper will be filled with the thoughts of what the strikers might come up with but as soon as he steps on the pitch, every thought disappears.
“After facing Nigeria three times in the past at this level, I expect the Argentines to come with a different approach in Brazil because they’ve always won with a slim margin. But I also expect the Super Eagles to step up their game, knowing that the outcome of the first game is crucial to their campaign.
“Argentina are one of the top teams of the world I wouldn’t wish to play against. They have a way of running on the pitch, totally different from the European concept that we’re used to. If you recall the era of (Claudio) Caniggia and (Gabriel) Batistuta, they had a way of connecting to Maradona in a zigzag formation that confused opponents.
“But I’m glad Nigeria will be facing Argentina again; they’ll also be thinking of the Super Eagles and what improvement has taken place in the team. I believe that this time around it will be a different ball game; I hope and pray that Nigeria will nail them this time.”
Rufai allayed the fears that a possible sidelining of Enyeama during the tournament could expose the inexperience of the reserve goalkeepers in the squad.
“We pray that nothing happens to Enyeama because strikers are conscious of his prowess. But that doesn’t mean Austin Ejide is not as good,” he said.
“One thing about goalkeeping is that the more you feature with the team, the more confident you become.
“The longer a goalkeeper plays with certain defenders, the better he understands them through constant communication. If for any reason Enyeama fails to be fit for a game, the sudden takeover of his role by the substitutes will likely create an immense pressure in the team. The substitute will have no choice but to rise up to the occasion within the short time available.
“Enyeama has always been there and has a good synergy with the rest of the team, but should either Ejide or (Chigozie) Agbim find himself in that role, I don’t think we’ll have any cause to worry. We have a sound technical crew that I believe must have prepared them well for such challenge.”